Defensive tackle (9)
Even as the Patriots defense has struggled to defend the pass in recent seasons, the one constant the unit could always rely on was its ability to stop the run. The main reason for that was the steady, dominant play of Vince Wilfork inside. That changed dramatically in Week 4 in Atlanta when Wilfork was lost for the season to a torn Achilles.
New England struggled mightily to stop the run from that point on, and when veteran Tommy Kelly was lost for the season with a knee injury shortly thereafter the problems intensified.
Both Wilfork and Kelly are entering their 11th seasons, venturing toward their mid-30s and are coming off serious injuries. That's not exactly the kind of situation Bill Belichick likes to be in, and some important decisions will need to be made during the offseason.
Wilfork will turn 33 in November and currently holds a cap number that will exceed $11 million. The Patriots will want to knock that figure down, but there are no guarantees that will happen and it's certainly no sure thing that he'll return to form even if he remains in the fold. Kelly is a year older than Wilfork. He's been a durable player in the past but anytime a player ventures toward his mid-30s life can end in a hurry so the Patriots may be looking for some help – whether it be through the draft or free agency.
Without their only two proven players at defensive tackle last season, the Patriots were forced to turn to rookies, waiver-wire pickups and various other castoffs. While Chris Jones, Joe Vellano and Sealver Siliga actually exceeded expectations in holding down the fort, the fact remains the run defense dropped off significantly – New England finished 30th in the league stopping the run – and the need for some depth inside would seem to be evident.
One player to keep in mind is Armond Armstead, who missed his rookie season due to an infection. He underwent surgery during the summer, landed on the non-football illness list and ultimately missed the entire year. Belichick included Armstead after the season when he discussed the front, mentioning that the team was without its top three interior defensive linemen, so the coach may have some plans for the former USC and CFL standout.
One player not likely in the plans is Isaac Sopoaga, who was acquired at the trade deadline from Philadelphia. He did little to shore up the front and eventually finished the season as one of the game day inactives. He will likely be cut at some point as he is due a $3.5 million salary in 2014.
Jones showed promise as an interior rusher, finishing with 6 sacks and 56 tackles. Vellano was strong early on but seemed to fade down the stretch before being replaced in the starting lineup by Siliga, who was promoted off the practice squad after arriving in November. Siliga recorded a sack in each of the last three games and performed well. All three will vie for jobs regardless of the decisions made on the veterans.
Cory Grissom was injured during the summer and spent the season on IR while Marcus Forston played in three games while splitting his time between the active roster and practice squad. They also will look to win jobs to provide depth next season.